Strong Project Leadership: The Antidote to Failed Projects


Most often, a completed building project reveals none of the challenges it faced while in its construction phases. Its high-end finishes, cutting-edge functionality, and ultimate manifestation of the initial vision mask the reality of its blown budget, schedule delays, and substandard internal flaws. And, although there is never just one reason why these projects fail in the making, in many cases, the biggest driver of project failure is a lack of leadership.

Great Examples of Failed Projects

We've recently profiled two notable examples of projects that were ultimately successful despite the failed leadership they experienced during their development, the Sydney Australia Opera House, and the Airbus A380 passenger jet.

Both projects now exemplify the highest standard for their industry (opera houses and airliners), yet each went way over budget (AU $95 million for the Opera House and US$ 6 billion for the jet) and years past their original delivery dates (ten and six, respectively). Neither had good leadership at the beginning or for the duration of their development, which was the primary cause of their failure to come in on time or on budget.

Why Project Leadership Matters

At its most basic level, good leadership results in higher performance and improved productivity across an enterprise. Leaders who can articulate goals and direct the teamwork necessary to accomplish them often see better final results, improve both staff and customer loyalty, and can reduce costs while achieving higher standards. Professional services organizations especially can experience significant benefits when their leadership stays true to project goals and keeps the production team on task throughout project development.

So, What Makes a Good Leader?

Some great leaders express a naturally magnetic personality (good humor, authentic, and curious), coupled with high intelligence and creativity. Others lead through their clarity of vision and excellent communication skills. So while there are many ways to be a successful leader, most successful leaders share these traits:

They Maintain the Unified Truth of the Project

Regardless of the scope, size, or complexity of a project, it is still a single project with a single goal to achieve. Leadership establishes the "truth" of the project by defining its elements, then pursuing its development through the use of a common language, expected behaviors, and disciplined practices. Both the Opera House and the A380 projects failed because there was no single "truth" that defined either of those endeavors.

  • Having no finite plan for the opera house at any stage of its development resulted in extended delays and excess cost overruns.
  • The A380 lacked, literally, a common language by which all its partners communicated with each other. The resulting chaos caused expensive errors that threatened to permanently cripple the project.

They Actively Engage with Their Teams

No leader succeeds on their own; they need people to follow them and their directives to achieve their common goals. According to a Gallup poll, people follow leaders who offer trust, compassion, hope, and stability. Accordingly, successful leaders recognize the needs of their organization (both people and teams) and, as an essential tenet of achieving project success, ensure the enterprise meets those needs throughout the project process.

They are Organized and Adaptable

Leadership requires a dedicated focus on project goals, while also maintaining an eye on the constant barrage of minute details and demands for change. Many leaders establish a clear timetable of milestones and tie activities and budgets to that timeline to ensure each separate element is following the same course.

At the same time, sound leadership recognizes that unforeseen circumstances can, and will, change both the timeline and the budget, and make adaptations and modifications as appropriate. 

Successful leaders remain flexible throughout the project development while retaining their focus on its ultimate end.

They Embrace Technology

Those leaders that currently excel in today's hyper competitive marketplace, and will continue to succeed as their industries evolve, are embracing the technologies that provide the tools to master every element of their project management strategy. In the professional services industries, SAP posits that there are four critical technical trends that are transforming the sector; those organizations that fail to adopt the digital capacities risk losing their market share.

Managing Talent

As noted above, keeping the on-staff talent happy is a significant contributor to project success. Today's human resource management programming tracks worker utilization, skills development, and cost management to maximize the effort of every worker throughout the life of the project.

Ensuring Mobility

Both staff and customers appreciate being able to communicate with project team members while on the go. For the professional services company, mobile access keeps associates connected so they can do their best work regardless of their physical location.

Reflecting on Data

"Big Data" and data analytics have already transformed how the world does business. Data collected from project personnel, customers, third parties and others drive the decision-making process throughout the life of the project.

Acting on Data

Every project evolves, and managing changes and adaptation effectively means taking action regarding existing circumstances. Using today's technology to accurately assess current conditions lets project leadership respond effectively and efficiently to both staff and customer demands.

Neither team involved with the Opera House or the A380 had the benefit of today's sophisticated project management and accounting solutions. Today's project leaders can use these tools to avoid the suffering caused by the bad project leadership demonstrated by those projects.


For additional information on Beyond Software please contact:

Nicole Holliday

Topics: Leadership

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